Genetic 'Adam' and 'Eve' Uncovered

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"The Fall of Man" by Palma il Vecchio (1544-1628). Despite their overlap in time, ancient "Adam" and ancient "Eve" probably didn't even live near each other, let alone mate.
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Almost every man alive can trace his origins to one man who lived about 135,000 years ago, new research suggests. And that ancient man likely shared the planet with the mother of all women.

The findings, detailed today (Aug. 1) in the journal Science, come from the most complete analysis of the male sex chromosome, or the Y chromosome, to date. The results overturn earlier research, which suggested that men's most recent common ancestor lived just 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.

Despite their overlap in time, ancient "Adam" and ancient "Eve" probably didn't even live near each other, let alone mate. (The 10 Biggest Mysteries of the First Humans)

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"Those two people didn't know each other," said Melissa Wilson Sayres, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study.

Tracing history

Researchers believe that modern humans left Africa between 60,000 and 200,000 years ago, and that the mother of all women likely emerged from East Africa. But beyond that, the details get fuzzy.

The Y chromosome is passed down identically from father to son, so mutations, or point changes, in the male sex chromosome can trace the male line back to the father of all humans. By contrast, DNA from the mitochondria, the energy powerhouse of the cell, is carried inside the egg, so only women pass it on to their children. The DNA hidden inside mitochondria, therefore, can reveal the maternal lineage to an ancient Eve.

But over time, the male chromosome gets bloated with duplicated, jumbled-up stretches of DNA, said study co-author Carlos Bustamante, a geneticist at Stanford University in California. As a result, piecing together fragments of DNA from gene sequencing was like trying to assemble a puzzle without the image on the box top, making thorough analysis difficult.

Y chromosome

Bustamante and his colleagues assembled a much bigger piece of the puzzle by sequencing the entire genome of the Y chromosome for 69 men from seven global populations, from African San Bushmen to the Yakut of Siberia.

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By assuming a mutation rate anchored to archaeological events (such as the migration of people across the Bering Strait), the team concluded that all males in their global sample shared a single male ancestor in Africa roughly 125,000 to 156,000 years ago.

In addition, mitochondrial DNA from the men, as well as similar samples from 24 women, revealed that all women on the planet trace back to a mitochondrial Eve, who lived in Africa between 99,000 and 148,000 years ago — almost the same time period during which the Y-chromosome Adam lived.